Clarence Victor Grimmett
December 25, 1891, Caversham, Dunedin, Otago, New Zealand
May 02, 1980, Kensington Park, Adelaide, South Australia, (aged 88y 129d)
Right hand bat
In the corner shop near our home in a suburb of Sydney there hung a poster. It mesmerised me. Mum sent me weekly for sugar or potatoes or something else that in the early 1950s used to be weighed from bulk bins and did not come prewrapped in plastic. There on the wall, curling at the corners, was the poster - or it may have been a calendar - the multiple photographs of a wizened little man pointing his wrist towards the camera, holding a cricket ball this way and that, always with a sly grin, always with his large cap pressed down over his creased-up eyes. He was Clarrie Grimmett, long abandoned by the first-class game but still, by the suggestion of craft and mystique, capable of sending a youngster running back from the shop to grab a tennis ball and send it spinning haphazardly all over the empty, dusty street.
Grimmett's influence on the thousands who watched him and later read about him was profound and secure for all time, especially in days of spin drought. Now, slow wrist bowlers are a threatened species. Then, Grimmett was one of many - but unmatched in skill and temperament. He became, quite simply, a legend, and unlike Arthur Mailey, who spun with gay abandon, he would have prospered today, given that selectors and captains did the right thing by him. He was wonderfully accurate because he was endowed with that special physical co-ordination that not even endless practice can turn into international class. It so happened that he did also practise endlessly.
Bowling to a marked area in his backyard, with a fox terrier to fetch the ball (and who apparently could also count to six), he made himself as accurate as a machine, and he mastered the variations of spin bowling, never believing that he knew it all. After the standard legbreak, topspinner and googly there came the flipper - which took several years to perfect, and which, when batsmen tried to discern by the snap of his fingers, he smokescreened by snapping the fingers of his left hand as he released a legbreak - and beyond that, well on in years, further experimentation: truly the Barnes Wallis of the cricket world.
He was as representative of Australia and her cricket as was Chips Rafferty of the men of the bush. Yet Grimmett was born in New Zealand. He spun his way into the world on Christmas Day 1891 (confessing to me in a letter in 1972 that it was a year earlier than shown in cricket records). Practising assiduously at the Basin Reserve, he first attracted attention at fifteen when he took 6 for 5 and 8 for 1 for Wellington Schools in a representative match; he was playing Plunket Shield at seventeen. He was named as emergency for Reese's side which toured Australia in 1913-14, but no SOS came. So he decided to try his luck alone, and crossed the Tasman the year the Kaisers War broke out. There followed three happy years of club cricket in Sydney.
During this period he was once stopped in his tracks by M.A. Noble, his captain. 'D'you think you're the only one playing in this game?' said the great man. Clarrie was taken aback. He asked how he had offended. 'Don't you know there is a bowler on at the other end?' pursued Noble. 'Yes,' said Clarrie, 'but what's that to do with me?' He was told that the fast bowler at the other end hardly had time to put his sweater on before he had to take it off again. The little chap was taking 1 1/2 minutes to bowl a six-ball over. He was instructed henceforth to wait down the pitch and to walk back more slowly to his mark. How proud Noble would be today to see the doctrine so widely accepted.
Grimmett, a signwriter by trade, followed the signposts to Melbourne next, where former Test bowler J. V. Saunders gave him sound guidance. Soon he managed to find a place in the Sheffield Shield side. But the glow of his future shone from Adelaide, even though he finished with an 8 for 81 for Victoria. In February 1925, at 33, he won the first of his 37 Test caps. In that Sydney Test his figures were 5 for 45 and 6 for 37, his victims including Hobbs, Sandham, Woolley, Hendren, Hearne, Whysall and Kilner. Woolley, with a crowd of 40,000 looking on, was his first Test wicket, bowled by a 'wrong'un'. Eleven years later at Durban, van der Merwe was his 216th and last, in a Test in which he took 13 wickets. He was a very unlucky man not to have been given further international appearances.
As it was, he averaged exactly six wickets per Test (he didn't bowl in the Melbourne Test against South Africa in February 1932), with a striking rate of a wicket every 67 balls and an average cost of a mere 2.16 runs per six-ball over. There were some great batsmen around in those days, and some heartbreaking (for bowlers) pitches. Grimmett's rewards were earned by canniness and hard work. Often enough he got Hammond and Bradman out, and never did he bowl mechanically. The straight or barely-breaking ball was a main weapon, gaining him a high proportion of lbws. When the wicket was unresponsive he roundarmed to a teasing length, often at the leg stump; he could use looping, swerving flight quite as cleverly as 'Tich' Freeman, dropping the ball two feet short of the batsman's expectation; he closely analysed the opposition man by man, as if he were a demolition contractor, though their downfall he executed by guile, not violence.
His 29 wickets in England in the 1930 series were a record, and it is accepted that his bowling was at least as important to Australia as was Bradman's phenomenal batting (he took 144 wickets at 16.85 on the tour). In each of the next two home series - against West Indies and South Africa - he gathered 33 wickets. Highly effective in England again in 1934, he took 25 more (O'Reilly 28), and in 1935-36 he set a record for Australia which still stands of 44 wickets against South Africa. He crowned his career with his 200th Test wicket in that sensational rubber, the first bowler to do so, but at 44 he was considered by some to be too old for further service. He himself had always been conscious of his weight of years; indeed, he and his cricket cap were almost inseparable, lest his baldness be taken too seriously (shades of Arthur Shrewsbury).
He was aggrieved at being shelved, and the premature breaking-up of the destructive spin partnership of Grimmett and O'Reilly almost certainly weakened Australia in the few seasons remaining before the war. But still there was Sheffield Shield cricket, and in 1939-40 Clarrie showed 'em with 73 first-class wickets, lifting his Shield total to a record 513. So he was still very functional at 48.
He was also very affable almost forty years later, when, at the Centenary Test in Melbourne, where he made one of his last public appearances, moving very slowly, bent over his walking stick, the fragile old hero remembered his 10 for 37 against Yorkshire in 1930, still one of only three all-tens by Australians in England (the others were spinners too: Bill Howell and Arthur Mailey). Hallowed still in his memory was the strokeplay of Stan McCabe.
He thought deeply about the game all his life, and wrote one of the finest of coaching manuals in Getting Wickets, which should be reissued and distributed to every school and club in these monotonous times of pace, pace and more pace. Towards the end, Clarrie Grimmett was touched by despair at the dearth of spin bowling. Ever ready to pass on advice, he hated to see the art at which he had been a master gradually fading to obscurity. In 1930 he met B. J. T. Bosanquet, who brought the googly to prominence and acceptability. 'Am I responsible for you?' the inventor said kindly to his Antipodean successor. The dynasty of wrist-spin seems to have lasted no more than three-quarters of a century.
He had more than the average share of nicknames, marks of respect and affection: 'Scarlet', 'Grum', 'The Gnome', 'The Fox'. He was the 'miser' against Mailey's 'millionaire', but there was nothing mean about Grimmett, except that he bowled a strict length, and was only once in his life called for a no-ball.
The corner shop's closed now, the poster disappeared years ago, and Grimmett is no more. His old team-mates Bradman, Pellew, O'Reilly, Darling and Fingleton were at his funeral. No moderns. Luckily I've got one of those pre-war 'flicker' books, and I can see The Fox bowl his googly - six times in 1 1/2 minutes if the timing is right. Might take it to the Test matches this summer and flick it through as the fast bowlers tramp back to their marks.
Sufficient to say that cricket owes a mighty debt to the schoolmaster in New
Zealand who forbade the infant Grimmett to bowl fast and instead insisted that he develop his spinners.
Wisden Cricket Monthly
Born in Dunedin in the South Island of New Zealand on Christmas Day, Clarence Victor Grimmett must have been the best Christmas present Australia ever received from that country. Going to Australia in 1914, on a short working holiday which lasted for 66 years, he joined the Sydney club, which had its headquarters at Rushcutters Bay. Three years in Sydney District cricket were sufficient to warn him that Arthur Mailey, another great spinner, had literally been given the green light towards the New South Wales team and all fields beyond. This, and marriage to a Victorian girl, took Grimmett to Melbourne, where he played with the South Melbourne club. During his six years in Melbourne he was given only three invitations to play for Victoria, the third of which was against South Australia when, providentially, he collected eight wickets.
It was after his visit to Sydney with the Victorians, for the first Shield match after the Great War, that I managed to see him for the first time. In Sydney, in the match against New South Wales, Ted McDonald had performed outstandingly for Victoria and was consequently the cynosure of all eyes when the Victorian team, on its way home to Melbourne, played an up-country match in the mountain city of Goulburn. Not quite all eyes, however. The attention of one pair, belonging to a thirteen-year-old boy named O'Reilly, was rivetted on a wiry little leg-spinner whose name on the local score-board was Grummett. To me, from that day onward, Grummett he remained, and my own endearing name for him throughout our later long association was Grum.
We played together for the first time in an Australian team at Adelaide against Herbie Cameron's South Africans in 1931, and for the last time in the Durban Test of 1936 when Vic Richardson's Australian side became the first ever to go through a tour undefeated - a feat paralleled by Bradman's 1948 team in England. On that 1935-36 South African tour, Grum set an Australian record for a Test series with 44 wickets, yet he came home to be dropped forever from the Australian side. He was shoved aside like a worn-out boot for each of the five Tests against Gubby Allen's English team in Australia in 1936-37 and he failed to gain a place in the 1938 team to England, led by Bradman.
It was illogical to assume that age was the reason for his discard. He was 47, it is true, when the touring side was chosen, yet two years later, at the age of 49, he established an Australian record of 73 wickets for a domestic first-class season. Which raises, rather pointedly, the question of why the hell was he dropped? By now Don Bradman was Grimmett's captain for South Australia, and also Australia's captain. As such he was an Australian selector, and Bradman, it seemed, had become inordinately impressed with the spin ability of Frank Ward, a former clubmate of his in Sydney. It was Ward who was chosen for the first three Tests against Allen's side in 1936-37 and who caught the boat for England in 1938. Bradman, it seemed had lost faith in the best spin bowler the world has seen. Grum's departure was a punishing blow to me and to my plans of attack. His diagnostic type of probing spin buttressed my own methods to such a degree that my reaction to his dismissal was one of infinite loss and loneliness.
Unlike Arthur Mailey, the first of the Australian spin trilogy of the inter-wars era, Grimmett never insisted on spin as his chief means of destruction. To him it was no more than an important adjunct to unerring length and tantalising direction. Grimmett seldom beat a batsman by spin alone. Mailey often did. I cannot remember Grimmett bowling a long-hop, whereas Mailey averaged one an over. So much, in fact, did inaccuracy become a feature of Mailey's success that he himself came to believe that it was an essential ingredient. Such wantonness was anathema to Grimmett, who believed that a bowler should bowl as well as he possibly could every time he turned his arm over. And Grimmett was perhaps the best and most consistently active cricket thinker I ever met.
He loved to tell his listeners that it was he who taught Stan McCabe how to use his left hand correctly on the bat handle - and I never heard Stan deny it. The flipper was originated by Grum during that Babylonian Captivity of his, and he used it to good effect in his record-breaking last season before the Second World War. He passed it on to men like Bruce Dooland and Cecil Pepper. He seldom bowled the wrong'un, because he preferred not to toss the ball high. On hard, true pitches he would bowl faster than his usual pace, taunting good batsmen to get to him on the half-volley. He was a genius on direction, and his talent for preying on a batsman's weakness was unequalled. He never let a batsman off the hook; once you were under his spell you were there to stay.
Grimmett joined South Australia from Victoria in 1923, just in time to bowl his way into the final Test in Sydney against Arthur Gilligan's 1924-25 England team. In his baptismal effort he took eleven wickets. In 79 Sheffield Shield games he tallied 513 wickets, an Australian record that will probably last for ever. The most successful Shield spinner in modern times, Richie Benaud, totalled 266 wickets in 73 matches, a relatively insignificant performance. Of Grimmett's 106 Test wickets against England, nearly 70 were collected on English pitches in a land where savants say leg-spinners are ineffective. One wonders what colossal figures he would have amassed had he played all his first-class cricket in England. Had he done so, you can be sure there would not be half the present insistence on pacier finger-cutting.
It was lucky for me that I preferred to bowl downwind, an unusual trait in a spinner's character. It allowed our partnership to develop and prosper. No captain ever had to worry which bowling end was whose. We competed strongly with each other and kept a critical eye on one another's performances. In Johannesburg in 1936, all-rounder Chud Langton hit me clean over the top of the square-leg grandstand of the old Wanderers ground. Cackling gleefully, Grum left no doubt in my mind that it was the biggest hit he had ever seen. Silently I was inclined to agree. In Clarrie's next over, Chud clouted him straight over the sightscreen and so far into the railway marshalling yards that the ball was never returned. From that delivery, until hostilities ceased for the afternoon, I never managed to get within earshot of my bowling mate.
Social life meant little to Grum. Not until late in his career did he discover that it was not a bad idea to relax between matches. In England in 1934 I bought him a beer in the Star Hotel in Worcester to celebrate his first ten wickets of the tour. It took him so long to sink it that I decided to wait for his return gesture till some other time on the tour. Later he told me, with obvious regret, that on previous tours he had been keeping the wrong company and had never really enjoyed a touring trip. That I thought was sad, but not half as sad as I felt when, at the very zenith of his glorious career, he was tipped out of business altogether. With Grum at the other end, prepared to pick me up and dust me down, I feared no batsman. Our association must have been one of cricket's greatest success stories of the twentieth century.
Bill O'Reilly, Wisden Cricketers' Almanack
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